Ready-for-Disaster Republicans

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, January 26, 2009

Beneath the warm pledges of bipartisanship and the earnest calls for cooperation in the midst of a grave crisis lurks an unpleasant fact: From the moment it loses power, the opposition party turns to the task of getting it back.

Party politics has not been suspended. It has just become more subtle. Republicans are already testing lines of attack against President Obama and laying down markers that will allow them to say they warned us -- if Obama fails. In the meantime, Obama is already countering with quiet moves to broaden his political coalition.

When opponents of abortion rallied in Washington's streets last week, Obama did not offer a simple restatement of his support for abortion rights. Instead, his first response to the subject as president coupled his support for legal abortion with a call for "common ground." He urged action "to prevent unintended pregnancies, reduce the need for abortion, and support women and families in the choices they make."

The consensual tone on this divisive issue reflects intense behind-the-scenes lobbying by Obama's religious supporters, who asked him to put off for at least a day his executive order ending the ban on federal funds for groups involved in abortions overseas. The symbolism of the delay suggested that Obama intends to continue to poach constituencies that were once reliably Republican.

Republicans are divided over how aggressively to take on Obama. This is the new president's greatest advantage over Bill Clinton, who faced fierce GOP attacks from Day One.

It was easier to discount Clinton's 1992 victory, based on 43 percent of the popular vote, than it is to deny the import of Obama's solid majority. Republicans actually gained ground in Congress the year Clinton was first elected. Now, they are coming off stinging congressional defeats in two consecutive elections.

On Friday, Gallup released a devastating report, based on 30,000 interviews over the course of 2008. It found that last year an average of 36 percent of Americans identified themselves as Democrats and only 28 percent called themselves Republicans. Gallup noted that this was the largest advantage for the Democratic Party in more than two decades.

For some Republicans, these numbers counsel short-term prudence and suggest a need for at least a semblance of cooperation with Obama, whose popularity is soaring. Former representative J.C. Watts, once a member of the House Republican leadership, cautions his party: "Be careful how you throw eggs at this parade." In Congress, this approach is reflected in the efforts of some Republicans to alter but not oppose Obama's stimulus package.

But in what might be seen as a "good cop, bad cop" division of labor, others in the GOP are already savaging Obama and his plans.

The most insidious line of attack involves laying the groundwork for blaming the new president in the event of a terrorist attack.

In a remarkably partisan op-ed in The Post last Thursday, Marc A. Thiessen, who was a speechwriter for former president George W. Bush, declared flatly: "If Obama weakens any of the defenses Bush put in place and terrorists strike our country again, Americans will hold Obama responsible -- and the Democratic Party could find itself unelectable for a generation."

This is dangerous, both substantively and politically, and it suggests that some of Bush's loyalists will continue to politicize issues related to terrorism in their efforts to vindicate the former president's legacy.

Less controversial are criticisms of the economic stimulus package still taking shape. Here, Republicans are torn between those focused on making the plan more palatable to conservative sensibilities and those offering root-and-branch criticism of its emphasis on new spending.

Typical of the second approach was a recent assault by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) on the proposal that House Democrats are expected to bring to the floor this week. "This isn't a bill to help the economy," Hensarling said recently on CNBC. "It's a bill to help big government," a response to "14 years of pent-up demand for big government programs." He warned that the package would simply mimic a flawed stimulus strategy pursued by Japan a decade ago.

Both Thiessen and Hensarling reflect an important undercurrent in Republican thinking: that the GOP should place its bets on the prospect that Obama's policies will fail, knowing that if the president succeeds, he and the Democrats are likely to gain ground no matter what Republicans do. This is hardly in keeping with the bipartisan spirit the White House seeks to foster. But it's a lot easier than coming up with new ideas.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company